What Is Postnasal Drip?

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You know it (and can feel it) when you have it: Postnasal drip is when mucus from a runny nose drains down the back of your throat. It's also sometimes called upper airway cough syndrome.

It can itch, tickle, make you cough, and cloud your voice. But until it goes away, postnasal drip can be as annoying as the steady drip of a kitchen sink.

Allergies and infections can cause your body to produce more mucus, which can lead to postnasal drip. It's normal to have a layer of mucus in the back of your throat; it helps protect you from illness and provides lubrication.

But when you feel like you're swallowing or coughing up a large amount of mucus (be it thin or thick), it can become bothersome. Fortunately, many home remedies and medications can help clear it up.

This article explains the symptoms and causes of postnasal drip as well as how it's diagnosed and treated.

Symptoms of Postnasal Drip
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Postnasal Drip Symptoms

Postnasal drip generally lasts for a few days or weeks, depending on the cause. Sometimes, it can be chronic; you may experience it for months on end. The effects are generally mild, and you can have a combination of symptoms:

These symptoms can fluctuate throughout the day. And you may feel worse after lying down for a while or after speaking for a long time.

Typically, postnasal drip is not dangerous. However, some activities—like skiing or scuba diving, which requires wearing a mask—can be uncomfortable or can make it feel like you can't breathe.

When To Seek Medical Care

Post-nasal drip rarely requires medical attention. And it often goes away on its own.

However, you should see a healthcare provider if:

  • Your symptoms last longer than a few weeks.
  • You have difficulty swallowing.
  • You feel like you're choking.
  • You have trouble breathing.
  • You have a fever, vomiting, or ear pain, which are signs of an infection that requires medical treatment.

Causes

There are a number of different causes of postnasal drip. Some are long-lasting (chronic), others short-term, and some occur in response to specific triggers.

In some instances, your body simply produces more mucus than it needs. Or your body might not clear out the mucus as quickly as usual, which causes it to build up.

Common causes of postnasal drip include:

Chronic Conditions

Temporary Conditions

Reactions to Sudden Triggers

Diagnosis

Postnasal drip is generally diagnosed based on your symptoms. A healthcare provider will likely consider the entire picture before making the next move, which might include:

Physical Examination

If you have a fever, your postnasal drip may be caused by an infection. Your provider will look in the back of your throat to see if there is any redness or swelling and ask about other signs of infection (such as headaches, fever, chills, and muscle aches).

If your phlegm is tinged with blood, it could be a sign of a gastrointestinal or pulmonary (lung) infection. This type of condition will require further evaluation.

Allergy Testing

If your postnasal drip symptoms recur every few days or weeks and resolve between episodes, then it could be related to an allergic reaction or sensitivity, such as to food.

Your provider may encourage you to keep a diary of your symptoms, noting what you ate and what you may have been exposed to (such as pollen or pets). Allergy testing may help pinpoint the trigger.

Imaging

If you have postnasal drip frequently, or always, it could be traced to an anatomical cause, such as a deviated septum.

You will need a physical examination and imaging tests to look for any variations that could be causing your symptoms.

Interventional Tests

Interventional tests may be necessary if GERD is a suspected cause.

GERD diagnosis may include tests such as direct laryngoscopy (which uses a scope to examine the upper throat), 24-hour pH probe (which can test for acid reflux), or esophagogastroduodenoscopy (which looks at the lining of your esophagus, stomach, and small intestine).

Treatment

There are a number of strategies for treating postnasal drip. Some tips can make you more comfortable, regardless of the cause:

  • Drink plenty of water to lubricate your throat and keep your mucus thin (and less bothersome).
  • Use a cool mist humidifier at night while you sleep.
  • Try rinsing your nasal passageways with a neti pot.
  • Use a vaporizer or diffuser with essential oils, such as peppermint or eucalyptus.

Over-the-Counter Options

Congestion, sore throat, and cough can often be managed with over-the-counter (OTC) therapies:

Be sure to consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist before using new medications. Avoid using decongestants for more than three days at a time.

Prescriptions

There are also a number of prescription medications used for the treatment of postnasal drip. For example, treatments for hay fever include some prescription medications.

For persistent postnasal drip, or for postnasal drip complicated by asthma, a healthcare provider may prescribe Atrovent (ipratropium bromide) or a steroid. If you have a bacterial or fungal respiratory infection, you may need antibiotics.

GERD requires treatment with a multi-pronged approach, which includes avoiding fatty and spicy foods, taking acid-reducing medications, and sleeping with your head slightly elevated.

Surgery

It's a big leap from occasional postnasal drip to surgery. But if your symptoms are hard to treat or the cause is anatomical, the solution may be a procedure such as sinus surgery, submucosal resection of the nose, or turbinate reduction.

Summary

Most people have experienced postnasal drip from time to time and know that it's usually nothing to worry about. The symptoms can be irritating and include an itchy throat, coughing, hoarseness, and water eyes.

Postnasal drip usually goes away on its own. If it doesn't, or the symptoms get worse, it's smart to see a medical professional who can recommend the best treatment for this common-yet-irritating condition.

A Word From Verywell

If you experience postnasal drip a few times per year, then there is probably nothing to worry about. But if you seem to have postnasal drip frequently or on a regular basis, you should talk to your healthcare provider about it. An underlying cause may be triggering your postnasal drip. And a treatment could be directly within your reach.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I need to see a healthcare provider for postnasal drip?

    You may, if it doesn't clear up after a week or so and you have symptoms that suggest you may have a infection or other medical issue that requires treatment, such as:

    • Blood in your nasal secretions (especially if it comes from only one nostril)
    • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
    • Fever (for no obvious reason)
    • Foul-smelling mucus
    • Wheezing
  • Is chicken soup good for postnasal drip?

    It may be. According to an oft-cited 2000 study published in the journal CHEST, classic chicken soup lowered the amount of neutrophils (white blood cells) in the upper airways of people with colds, diminishing their symptoms. As far as postnasal drip goes, experts say any hot liquid will help thin mucus—one key to relief.

  • Can using a neti pot help relieve postnasal drip?

    Yes. Nasal irrigation, also known as nasal lavage, whether with a neti pot or another method, helps to rinse away mucus and clean the nasal passages. It is more effective than saline nasal sprays.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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